But maybe it’s even better to look at WWE as a drama. It’s certainly not a prestige drama (something wonderfully but depressingly progressive: there are no dead women in Raw!), but it definitely floats between multiple genre dramas. Raw resembles a high school teen drama: the popular kids, the hot-tempered losers, the jocks (of course!), the rebellious badasses with authority issues, and even the weirdo goth/theater kids covered in face paint. In the same episode, it will switch to an eerie supernatural/mystery drama with the undead fighting the living, smoky pyrotechnics, stolen urns, and whatever the hell the Wyatt family are up to this week.
WWE is distancing itself from the term “wrestling”: wrestlers are deemed “superstars” and WWE, which once stood for World Wrestling Entertainment, has become less an acronym than just the company’s preferred moniker. And this makes sense, because viewing WWE as a TV drama rather than a wrestling program not only makes it a better form of entertainment; it also makes it easier for non-wrestling fans to understand why the rest of us love it so much. Yes, it is ridiculous and yes, it often completely misses the mark, but when it fully commits to building drama and does that well, it’s better than most dramatic programming.
I have never been more excited for a Mad Men or True Detective episode than I have been for any given pay-per-view event. The heel turns works as well as any Don Draper reveal; the nonsense Bray Wyatt spews could be substituted for any of Rust Cohle’s monologues. When skillfully plotted, the Raw episodes leading up to Wrestlemania are as addictive and entertaining as the first season of True Detective or the winding build-up of Breaking Bad — making the payoff that much greater (or more devastating, as in last year’s case). When we mourn our favorite wrestler losing a match, we’re not responding to the loss of a single fight as much as the larger storyline that he or she is part of. It’s an unwanted twist in the narrative, comparable to Rory Gilmore choosing the “wrong” suitor or a favorite Lost character suddenly getting killed off.
This doesn’t mean that WWE Raw is going to be entered into the Emmy race at any point in the near future — this is still a program that boasts a little person who pretends he’s a bull and, recently, an “inter-species” match between a wrestler and a man in a bunny costume. But it’s not far off to say that the show has proved that it can reach the caliber of popular sitcoms and dramas. That’s why it’s frustrating for fans to see WWE written off so casually by other television aficionados. Of course wrestling is fake entertainment, but so is every other scripted program on television — and wrestling often beats those at its own game.